Saturday, 28 July 2012 02:30
By Frances Fuller
Antigua St. John's - Four years after the launch of a successful rehabilitation project in the Body Ponds Watershed, a devastating fire has destroyed acres of replanted vegetation.
For many years now, the Body Ponds Watershed (BPW) has been heavily eroded and overrun by Lemon Grass (Citronella sp.). During dry weather, vegetation and soil become extremely dry, promoting forest and grass fires.
In 2008, the Environment Division and Forestry Unit within the Ministry of Agriculture took it upon themselves to curb the problem, embarking on an extremely challenging project to rehabilitate the area.
Lemon Grass contains natural oils which are flammable, allowing it to burn easily. It thrives in areas that are frequently burnt, making the agricultural practise of setting the grass alight extremely hazardous.
While grass fires destroy peripheral vegetation, they prepare the ground for seed germination assisting Lemon Grass to spread and out-compete the natural vegetation. Further, when the grass is burnt, root clumps are left behind creating a channelling effect increasing potential for water erosion, and significant amounts of bare soil exposed to wind damage. The Significance
Antigua is a relatively dry island prone to droughts. Despite being the largest in area and effective rainfall, there are no major facilities to harness the surplus water generated by the Body Ponds Watershed.
A draft 2008 report, assessing rehabilitation options for the BPW (available at www.gefantigua.org) noted that “Added to this neglect of the watershed's capacity to provide significant water resources, has been the additional neglect of any effective form of management of the watershed's upper slopes, where most of the rainfall is generated.
“Fires have been allowed to steadily erode the area of forest, without which, the watershed will create worse floods from instant run-off and more sedimentation from unprotected soil.” The Solution
Through the Sustainable Island Resource Management Mechanism (SIRMM) Project, an area of approximately 52 acres within the 10,400 acres of the Body Ponds Watershed was chosen for rehabilitation.
BPW is regarded as the most important watershed in Antigua, covering an area larger than the “Potworks Watershed”, which is approximately 7,808 acres.
Good land use management practices were implemented to remove the Lemon Grass and the entire 52 acres was replanted with natural forest, mixed with fruit trees (West Indian almond, bamboo, maley apple, mango, java plums, mahoe, coconut trees and albizia). This was to ensure that the community could utilize the area and have a vested interest.
Importantly, in addition to this replanting effort, a large buffer strip around the project was cleared of Lemon Grass to ensure that any fires that erupted in the area did not damage the work done. Astonishing results in 2010
Tireless efforts by the Forestry Unit and the Environment Division paid off in March 2010, when a major fire erupted in the Body Ponds area, burning the entire hillside except for the demonstration site area.
“The hard work of the Forestry Unit has paid off and not a single tree planted through the project was burnt in the recent fires,” Mr. Thibou, a Forestry Assistant, stated at the time. “It goes to show that the buffer strip did work and is hugely important to the success of the project.”
A.C.P. Whitfield Joshua of the Fire Department was also surprised and impressed by the impact of the work, especially that of the buffer strip, which protected the rehabilitated area from going up in flames. Lack of follow-through in 2012
Sadly, due to lack of resources and failed requests by the Forestry Unit for assistance from the government for fuel to operate machinery to keep the Lemon Grass at bay, the buffer strip grew back to a dangerous height.
On Sunday June 17, 2012, the area suffered a devastating fire that tore through the entire Body Ponds Watershed, sending almost every re-planted tree in the area up in flames with no hope of being saved.
The advent of very dry conditions this year heightened the vulnerability of the island’s vast grassland and forest area, leaving it completely unobstructed to fire.
Had the buffer zone been maintained, all the progress made by the Environment and Forestry Unit would still be intact; however, they now face the daunting task of starting to rehabilitate the area again from scratch – a loss with a massive cost.
Significant time and money was invested into the growth of hundreds of sapling trees for the project, now destroyed. The same draft 2008 report highlighted that “watershed management and forestry activities cost a lot of money and are labour intensive, requiring continual care in the first few years as well as a lot of inputs and services.
“At the decision making level, many find it hard to visualise the benefits of watershed rehabilitation, many of which appear intangible and other more conventional projects with more tangible outcomes tend to get awarded the scarce funds available,” the report said.
“Well-forested watersheds support livelihoods and increase the productivity of soils, the carrying capacity of natural habitats and provide environmental goods and services that human beings need to survive.”
The serious lack of commitment by relevant senior officials within the government hinders the important work done by the Environment Division and Forestry Unit, rendering their work a total waste of time. A source close to the Ministry of Agriculture noted the team’s total disappointment with the lacklustre effort by the government to make environmental conservation a top priority in Antigua and Barbuda.
“Body Ponds is the most recent case in point of this lack of commitment,” the source said. “Managing our natural resources is of paramount importance for the present generation and those to come.”